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Landing horses from Australia (attributed to J. B. East ca.1834,
Watercolor on paper)

Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788.  They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers.  Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804.  In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses.  Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa.  In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.

The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).

The Distribution of the Feral Horse in Australia According to the Department of Conservation

Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses.  Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:

The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.

The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”

Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem.  Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun.  Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe).  Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not.  Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization).  Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other.  Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely.  Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.

Brumbies in a eucalyptus forest

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